Buddha on the Rio Grande

A River Runs Through It

Drumbeats pierce the quiet of first light as fires appear at the top of a low mesa that hangs over the eastern edge of the pueblo of Jemez. The pink and yellow hues of the canyon are softened by the haze from the bonfires that line the roads winding between low adobe houses in the village. The people of the pueblo welcome Christmas morning as they have for as long as they have farmed corn along the river and hunted deer in the mountains.

From the smoke of one small fire comes a member of the Buffalo clan, his head covered in a hairy horned headdress, his bare chest smeared brown. Farther up the canyon, members of the Antelope clan, soft tails hanging from their belts, appear from the smoke of another fire.

The dancers gracefully descend from the hillside. They meet where the road enters the village and are showered with handfuls of dried corn, a sacrament delivered up from the land. Dancers and drummers face the eastern mesa, and Pueblo men sing an ancient prayer to welcome the rising sun.

The Pueblo people who were here first knew instinctively that spirit is tied to the land. Their rituals—annual, seasonal, and daily—invoke their surroundings. Mesas and mountains are places of worship.

The landscape in New Mexico and southern Colorado is tied tightly to spiritual practices. Corn, planted with a prayer in the dry soil of desert gardens, is essential to pueblo ceremonies from the Hopi mesas to the valley that holds the Rio Grande. Navajos draw prayers on the ground with colored sand, then blow the dirt clean at the ceremony’s end. Catholics, who in the 1600s, followed the Pueblo people into the Rio Grande Valley, still go to the forests for their saints, choosing cottonwood roots or pieces of aspen from which to carve santos—earthy, accessible images of the inhabitants of heaven.

And smoke from piñon fires is an unordained but powerful preacher whose sermon reaches Native Americans, Hispanic villagers, and Anglo newcomers from mountains to valleys on cold winter days.

Georgia O’Keeffe saw the light over the red cliffs of Abiquiu and never left, spending a lifetime painting bones, rock and flowers. D. H. Lawrence looked at the sky above the low, brown adobe village of Taos and said the view changed him forever: blue against brown; heaven and earth.

The people of Jemez Pueblo have recognized the transformational qualities since time immemorial. Twelve miles up the winding red-rock canyon from the present-day village, their ancestors bathed in geothermal hot springs and built a sprawling mesa-top settlement. On the mesa ledge above, an extensive complex of dirt and stone ruins once occupied by the Anasazi lies abandoned except for the ritual visits of their modern-day descendants, the Jemez.

Later, Spanish priests, tempered by the fires of a 750-year struggle to evict the Moors from their homeland, brought their austere Catholicism to this holy place. Now the adobe ruin of their mission church lies crumbling on one side of the winding mountain highway; a modern convent sits on the other. Spreading across the narrow canyon neck is Bodhi Mandala Zen Center.

In 1973 the first Buddhist practice center was established in the region when students of Rinzai Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi bought a Catholic retreat house in the village of Jemez Springs. Bodhi Manda had a zendo building, dormitories, and a dining hall set along the icy Jemez River. Best of all, the land had a natural hot spring, the same geothermal warming waters used by the early Pueblo people. When this was reported back to Sasaki Roshi, he supposedly said, “If you find hot spring, I come.”

Poets, painters, and priests have been drawn to the high desert plain that links the flatlands of West Texas and the canyons of Arizona ever since train travel opened the region to the outside world. The region’s mountains, the valleys and rivers, combine to wrap around the soul of diverse travelers. It was train travel at the turn of the century and then U.S. 66, the ribbon of asphalt that began bringing travelers westward in the 1940s, that unfolded the formerly cloistered Southwestern landscape to new generations of pioneers and tourists alike. Most passed through. Some stayed, like the painters who found Taos in the 1930s and the bomb builders who founded Los Alamos in the 1940s.

The magnet of the landscape began drawing a nascent Buddhist community from the front seats of VW bugs and the sleeping-bag-strewn backs of rattletrap vans that passed through northern New Mexico in the 1960s. The bellringers of the Age of Aquarius began to gather near Taos, on a strip of desert land between the 13,000-foot peaks of the Taos Mountains and the 650-foot-deep chasm of the Rio Grande Gorge. One of those who drove onto the Taos mesa back then was Jonathan Altman. He stopped and he stayed, founding and helping to build the Lama Foundation, a spiritual retreat center in the mountains north of Taos. Thirty years later, Altman can still feel the inexplicable pull of the landscape. “People come to Taos and immediately say, �This is where I want to live,’” says Altman. “There are power spots, certainly. There are sacred mountains. There is a spiritual gravitation that is very real, but I couldn’t articulate what it is.”

Those who try to describe the lure of the landscape invariably say, “It is a spiritual place.” Or, “It speaks to the soul.” Those who have tried to explain it reach to a handful of theories: The Rocky Mountains are the spine of the continent; the vortex of the Four Corners still holds the mysterious power that attracted, then repelled the Anasazi; it is the golden light that reflects off the mountains at sunset that infuses them with pyramid power.

When Altman and others went searching for places to reinvent their generation, they turned to the original occupants of the land, the Taos Pueblo Indians. Altman and Richard Alpert, the former Harvard professor and psychedelic pioneer—among others—found a patch of stunning forested land on the steep slope below the Latir Peaks. Blanca Peak rises dramatically on the northern horizon, a 14,345-foot snowclad sentinel guarding the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. As Sisnaajinii, it is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo, a cornerpost of their world.

With the help of a Taos Pueblo couple, the new pioneers at Lama learned how to dig clay and sand from the ground, mix it with water and form it into building blocks of adobe, the same material used to build the multistoried apartments that still stand at Taos Pueblo.

Beginning in 1967, they built a complex of earthen buildings, and they sought the guidance of Little Joe Gomez, a member of Taos Pueblo who was also a member of the Native American Church, commonly known as the Peyote Church.

Over the years, Lama’s mission has survived varying incarnations. It remains a space for spiritual guests, from Sufi masters and Vedic teachers to Jewish mystics and Native American shamans. Alpert journeyed to India, returning as Ram Dass. Michelle Martin, an early Lama resident, subsequently played a crucial role in founding Bodhi Manda.

Many of those who came to Lama have gone on to other traditions but stayed in New Mexico or close by, because of the same mystical forces that attracted the Lama pioneers. “It’s old people and it’s old people who have preserved something, a tradition,” Altman says. “It’s being close to something that is charged and palpable. It’s deeper than just Buddhism. It’s who remembers the tradition and who remembers the way.”

Altman, who now lives in Santa Fe and sits zazen at the Cerro Gordo Zendo there, found building with adobe and living, literally, inside the earth, helped to focus Lama residents on the interplay of permanence and transience that embodies the wisdom of his Pueblo teachers. “There’s nothing more basic or primitive than making your bricks out of the earth, the whole aesthetic of adobe,” Altman says. “You use the land itself and bring a building up from the earth and when you leave it, it returns to the earth.”

While the land nurtures, its ways are also capricious. A forest fire sweeping through drought-parched stands of ponderosa destroyed most of Lama’s buildings in May 1996, but rebuilding efforts are underway.

The 1980s brought a new wave of dharma students to the region. In the northern reaches of the San Luis Valley, populated mainly by the descendants of Hispanic settlers from northern New Mexico, the Baca Grande Land Grant drew spiritual seekers. An Indian ashram, a Catholic monastery, a Zen center, and several Tibetan practice centers were established, while Lama Karma Dorje, a representative of the Tibetan Kagyu lineage, settled in Santa Fe in 1983 and began building a series of stupas in northern New Mexico, attracting a sangha of Westerners dedicated to Tibetan practice. In Albuquerque, newly arrived immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia began building wats and temples for community worship.

Ralph Steele, a therapist and native of the Sea Islands off the Carolina Coast, came to Santa Fe in 1981 from the West Coast where he had studied with Kalu Rinpoche and Jack Kornfield. “New Mexico is a religious paradise,” says Steele, who arrived to work with a program for the dying and ended up opening his own practice and founding the Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha. He often gives talks on meditation and pain management to non-Buddhist audiences. “You have the Penitentes, you have the Methodists and Sikhs and Hindus and Baptists and Buddhists. Nobody’s pointing any fingers. That’s what holds me here. Even if people don’t believe, they’re willing to listen and question.”

In 1991, the Dalai Lama traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead the case for Tibetan freedom. On the way, he made time for a four-day stay in New Mexico and met with Hopi elders. He emerged with an appreciation of Indian fry bread and an understanding of the similarities between the efforts to preserve Tibetan culture under Chinese rule and Native Americans’ experiences in the United States.

Frances Harwood, an anthropologist, arrived in Santa Fe seven years ago after teaching at Boulder’s Naropa Institute for nineteen years. Harwood and other cultural anthropologists refer to the Rio Grande area as a bio-region, a naturally defined zone where beings are interdependent and where the evolution of human culture—livelihoods, traditions, and spirituality—is driven by the land. Here, that bio-region is organized around the Rio Grande watershed. “What happens when the dharma comes to this area?” Harwood asks. “How will it become native to this place?”

The answer is emerging slowly, in small pieces. Tibetan practitioners build personal shrines from adobe bricks. People place effigies of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their Buddhist altars. In Santa Fe, Joan Halifax, an anthropologist and lay priest ordained by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, does death and dying work with Native American students and finds room for a dancing kachina figure in a winter solstice ceremony.

An overriding concern for the health of the land pervades Buddhist practices here, emerging as an ecologically-minded, engaged Buddhism. Harwood and Cynthia Jurs, another Buddhist practitioner, are placing consecrated Tibetan vases at the headwaters of the Rio Grande and at its foot, at the Gulf of Mexico, “to help heal the land.” Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos Study Group, brings his Zen practice to a decade of effort to stop the production of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratories.

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s newest dharma center is taking shape. The Albuquerque Zen Center, established in rented quarters in 1989, recently moved into a new zendo and monk’s residence on a nondescript city lot near the University of New Mexico campus. Amid the bustle of a growing city, the connection with the land is retained. The landscaping draws from drought-tolerant native trees and shrubs. Beneath coats of freshly applied stucco and plaster, the walls of the new buildings are made of 5,000 adobe bricks, formed of dirt and straw from the New Mexico earth.

And so, as the land and the cultures it draws put their stamp on the dharma, brick by brick, and breath by breath, Buddhism is becoming native to this place.

Leslie Linthicum, a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, lives in Alameda, New Mexico.


Buddhism in the Baca Grande

On a glorious July morning in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a crowd made its way through crystalline air along a dirt road festooned with prayer flags towards the Tashi Gomang Stupa. Carmelite monks walked alongside devotees of a local ashram, Buddhist practitioners of various lineages among local farmers and ranchers, New Agers and the merely curious. For weeks Tibetan lamas had been gathering to prepare for this day, the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when the forty-one-foot-high stupa would be consecrated. Above the stupa and to the east rose the fourteen thousand-foot-high snow peaks of the Sangres, to the west the view stretched forty miles across the San Luis Valley to the San Juan mountain range. To the south, towering over the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, rose Mount Blanca, known as Sis-na-jin to the Navajo and to the Hopi, the Sacred Mountain of the East. Visiting Tibetans remarked on how much the scenery reminded them of their own homeland.

The Tashi Gomang Stupa was built for His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1980, a year before his passing, the Karmapa visited the Baca Grande Estate where the stupa now stands, marking the beginning of a small but flourishing Buddhist presence in this stunning remote location in southern Colorado. In addition to the Karmapa’s lineage, current dharma centers include the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, under the direction of Richard Baker Roshi, and three centers of the Tibetan Nyingma lineage directed by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Gangteng Rinpoche, and Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche. Many individual practitioners have made the Baca their home for long-term retreats. As one visiting Tibetan rinpoche remarked, upon inquiring about the availability of suitable caves, “this is an excellent place to achieve enlightenment.”

The two-hundred-square-mile Baca Grande Estate had its origins as a land grant made to the Baca family by King Ferdinand of Spain in the nineteenth century. After that, the estate passed through various hands until it was acquired by the Arizona Land and Cattle Corporation, which developed as a retirement community in the 1970s. This venture proved unsuccessful, and in 1978 the financially troubled corporation was acquired by Maurice and Hanne Strong and several partners. Maurice Strong, the Canadian Undersecretary General of the United Nations who organized the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992, had long promoted environmental causes. Hanne, his Danish wife, felt a deep connection with both Buddhist and Native American traditions. Together, they had taken lay precepts with the Karmapa at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim.

“For thousands of years the indigenous peoples of this continent have considered this place to be one of the great spiritual centers of the world and a place of great healing,” says Hanne Strong, who felt an immediate affinity with the Baca Grande. “They have come here for some of their most sacred ceremonies, and their holy people, shamans, came here to seek their powers and develop enlightened states of mind.” According to White Rainbow, a Cree medicine man from Alberta, “In this sacred land there are keepers, grandfathers and grandmothers, who have been here for thousands of years. Our people would come here to rest, to get clear vision and guidance. This land is sacred; there is a great purpose for this place.”

The Strongs foresaw a different kind of development in the Baca. Land was set aside for a number of spiritual, Native American, and environmental groups. Aside from that of the Karmapa, these included a Carmelite hermitage, the Haidakhan Universal Ashram, the Sri Aurobindo Learning Center, Lindisfarne, and the Baca Center for High Altitude and Sustainable Agriculture. In turn, this new development attracted a variety of artists, craftspeople, naturalists, healers, and New Age seekers of all kinds to the Baca Grande and the adjoining village of Crestone.

At times it seemed that attendance at a Lakota sweatlodge or a Tibetan empowerment was de rigueur for acceptance in certain social circles in the Baca. At other times, this new community appeared to have all the trappings of a full-fledged New Age circus—a situation that did not sit well with the already established retirement community, many of whom had military backgrounds. Shirley MacLaine acquired land and was rumored to be planning a two-hundred unit “psychic workout” center.

Inevitably, conflicts arose, and building remained slow. By 1988, there were still only 136 homes in the Baca. The combined obstacles of a nonexistent economy, harsh winter climate, extreme remoteness, and lack of entertainment, as well as the possibility of something less than harmonious relationships with one’s neighbors, discouraged the merely frivolous. But a core of dedicated spiritual practitioners, environmentalists, and artists who had fallen under the spell of the Baca’s awe-inspiring beauty remained, determined to stick it out.

And so Buddhism in the Baca Grande began to take root. The Strongs had hosted numerous Tibetan teachers, including His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Urgyen Tulku. A small stupa had been built and Tibetan lamas had become a familiar part of the landscape, but no actual centers had yet been formed. Then in 1988, a small group assembled to realize the Karmapa’s vision for the Baca Grande. This included a Tibetan medical center, a monastery, a retreat center and an entire lay community. A house was acquired for a meditation center, and the group was asked to build the Tashi Gomang Stupa to consecrate His Holiness’ land. Around the same time, William Irwin Thompson, the founder of Lindisfarne, turned his facility over to Zen master Richard Baker Roshi, and the Crestone Mountain Zen Center was established.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the Karmapa’s representative in the United States, came to select the “eye of the land,” the most suitable place for stupa construction and blessed the site. Offerings were made to local deities and spirits and permission was asked of the Earth Devi—actions that seemed particularly appropriate in the Baca Grande—and work on the stupa slowly began.

Meanwhile, Richard Baker Roshi was establishing the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. Baker, dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, had been looking for a principal practice location for Dharma Sangha, the organization he founded after leaving San Francisco Zen Center in 1983. The combination of an offer of the Lindisfarne facility and the lure of the pristine surroundings proved irresistible. Baker’s activity in the Baca has flourished. A magnificent new zendo was recently completed, and practioners sit zafu to zafu in a newly finished hotoan, or dharma retreat hut.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, founder of Samten Ling, a Nyingma retreat center now being established in the Baca Grande, has a retreat cabin perched several hundred feet up a steep hillside overlooking a glorious mountain meadow. Kongtrul Rinpoche, now thirty-two years old, was a close disciple of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He met his American wife, Elizabeth, in Nepal, and in 1989 they moved to Boulder, where he was invited to join the faculty of Naropa Institute.

“I was looking for retreat land and came to look at some that had been offered to His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche. I was very impressed by the sense of drala and windhorse—Tibetan terms which he defines as “a powerful sense of nature, wakefulness and protectiveness at the same time.” After corresponding with Rabjam Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and dharma heir, it was agreed that Kongtrul Rinpoche would do something with the land himself.

He resigned his post at Naropa and began designing a community very much along the lines of a traditional Tibetan retreat center, a place where he could go on retreat himself, while guiding his students to do the same. “I want the students to have a path where they can do nine or ten years of retreat training until they become independent and then they can do what they like.”

The Manitou Foundation, set up by Hanne and Maurice Strong, has also given land to two other major Nyingma teachers, Gangteng Rinpoche and Orygen Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche. Gangteng Rinpoche was born in 1955 and has his main seat at Gangteng Gompa in the Black Mountains of Bhutan. During an overnight visit to the Baca Grande en route from Santa Fe to Boulder in 1994, seeing the Tashi Gomang Stupa under construction, he hurled a large piece of turquoise up into the interior and declared that this would be the place for his North American center.

Orgyen Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche still lives in the remote Golok region of eastern Tibet where he is highly regarded as a terton (a discoverer of hidden teachings). He was imprisoned for twenth-three years by the Chinese communists and his hands bear witness to the torture he endured. Upon visiting the Baca Grande, he too decided to make it his main center for practice in North America. He has also performed ceremonies with visiting Hopi elders to pray for the well-being of the earth.

Addressing the seven hundred people who gathered to witness the consecration of Tashi Gomang Stupa on July 6, Bokar Rinpoche said, “This gathering is something miraculous. It has come about not from any kind of obligation, but from our potential and fundamental goodness—an expression of warmth. To embrace with a loving heart goes beyond nationalities, beyond the notion of religion altogether. Part of the feeling of the fundamental human dignity is that we are, as human beings, endowed with being honest and loving and caring for each other. A loving expression of our commonalities, that is the experience of this celebration.” Hopefully the same spirit will remain true as Buddhism in the Baca Grande makes its way into the future.

Mark Elliott is a documentary filmmaker who lives in the Baca Grande. His latest videotape is The Bloodless Valley, about the Baca Grande. He is currently completing another on the creation of the Tashi Gomang Stupa.


Earth Treasure Vase

In 1990, I made a pilgrimage in Nepal to meet Cushok Mangtong, the Charok Rinpoche, a 106-year-old lama who lived in a mountain cave 15,000 feet above sea level. As my companions and I trekked over many days to his retreat, I decided to talk to him about what was happening to the earth, and ask him his advice about a world that was rapidly becoming dangerously poisoned.

After several weeks with Rinpoche, the day to ask finally came. Lama had never been away from the mountains and valleys of that region of Nepal and knew nothing of the modern world. But he was very curious. I talked about radioactive waste, with its 240,000-year life span before decaying into a “safe” level of radiation. I talked about how humans have become sick with cancers and other disease, and how we didn’t know what to do. He asked if there were people where we lived who were dedicating themselves to practicing for the benefit of others and said that even just one person practicing deeply will bring many blessings to the whole area.

Then he spoke of the earth treasure vases. Following a tradition that has been carried on for centuries on the Tibetan plateau, earthen vessels are made and filled with life-enhancing substances and then consecrated and buried in order to protect and heal the area around them. He told us that we should by all means get some and put them in many places. He told us to go next to Thangboche Monastery and ask the abbot there to make some for us.

My first reaction was, “How can an earthen vase in the ground do anything to protect us against the kind of severe damage being done to the earth nowadays?” But full of respect and willing to try anything, we set out for Thangboche.

The abbot offered to make the earth vases, and showed us some extraordinary relics he had saved—powerful medicines—to place inside the vases. Because of airport customs, it was better for them not to be filled and sealed in Nepal. Instead, they would mix the relics (which consisted of the crematory remains of great lamas) directly into the clay as they made the eight-inch-high pots, then we would fill and seal them ourselves back home. I asked if there was a special practice we needed to do accomplish this. “No, don’t worry about that,” he said. “We will consecrate them here. Just put them in the ground. They’ll do the work.”

Six years passed, and I had twenty-five earth treasure vases in a Nepali trunk in my home in Santa Fe, waiting to be put to use. I held back, unsure how to proceed, waiting for the “right” lama to come along and instruct us, waiting perhaps for the perfect Native American elder to tell us where they should go.

Finally, in the spring of 1996, northern New Mexico faced a severe drought, and forest fires raged across the Southwest. The skies were smoky and dark. The Lama Foundation had burned to the ground, the creeks were dry, and our gardens were dying. It was time to pull out the vases. At May’s full moon, a group of friends gathered to meditate and pray for rain. In the center of the circle was a bowl of water and four of the vases, one for each of the four directions. As if by magic, the first gentle rain in many months fell the next day.

We began to meet regularly at the full moon, and we brought offerings to fill the vases: earth from sacred places in India, Nepal, Tibet, and the American Southwest, healing herbs and medicines, precious and semiprecious stones, rolled mantras, images of deities, dutsi (Tibetan powders made from relics), prayers, songs, even golden acupuncture needles—all kinds of things that were sacred to us. We brought grains and corn pollen, brocades and silk, and water gathered from around the world. Anything that had life-giving properties, a healing essence, or protective qualities. Month after month, no matter how many sacred objects we placed inside, there was always room for more. The vases began to take on a life of their own, full of energy and purpose. We honored the blessings of the lamas who had given us this tradition, and realized we were digging into our own cultural roots by placing them here.

By late fall, the vases were full and ready to be placed in the earth. It seemed natural to bury one in each of the four directions of the Rio Grande bio-region, embracing the watershed in a mandala of healing. One would go to the north, at the source of the Rio Grande above Creede, Colorado; another to the east on the highest peak above Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. A third would go to the south, near Brownsville, Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and a fourth would lie to the west in the Jemez Mountains above Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

We sealed the vases with cork and beeswax, then decorated them with five colored silks, representing the five Buddha families, and sealed them with gold wax. We had made wooden boxes of fir, covered with copper to protect the vases in the ground, and we packed them inside with dried sage, lavender, rose petals, and juniper.

Before the winter snow came, we made pilgrimages to two of the four directions, north and east. This year the pilgrimages will continue to the south and west to complete the circle of protection for our small part of the planet. It’s just a beginning. There are still twenty-one earth treasure vases waiting to be filled and buried, and many other regions calling out to be stewarded in this way. As the lama told me, “Just put them in the ground.Tthey’ll do the work.”

Cynthia Jurs was ordained as a Dharmacharya in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. She lives in New Mexico and is co-director of Animal Alliance.

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